Corrupt officials ensure the battle against poaching remains futile
The country's Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Khamis Kagasheki admitted to amaBhungane that politicians are involved in the ivory trade.
"This business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network," Kagasheki said.
His deputy, Lazaro Nyalandu, echoed this, saying that big names in the Cabinet and the army, as well as officials in wildlife conservation, the Tanzanian Port Authority, the immigration department and the police, are implicated.
"It is a hard fight because the network collaborates as a team, sharing information, money and positions," Nyalandu said.
A report read by the main opposition party, Chadema, in Parliament in June pointed a finger at a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, wealthy businessperson Mohsin Abdallah Shein.
Shein was said to own 16 hunting blocks in game reserves. He allegedly uses these for poaching.
The hunting blocks are held by four companies - Royal Frontiers of Tanzania Limited, Game Frontiers of Tanzania Limited, Western Frontiers of Tanzania Limited and Northern Hunting and Enterprises Limited - which local media alleged belong either to him or his relatives.
This week, Shein described himself as "an innocent citizen of Tanzania" who is being targeted by business competitors.
"I've never been involved in illegal business, let alone elephant tusks," he told the Mail & Guardian.
"I have a number of legal businesses and I don't see the point of it."
Shein said that he owned Game Frontiers of Tanzania, but that the company operates "according to the law. These heavy allegations are full of lies." He vehemently denied owning 16 hunting blocks.
Another powerful figure under suspicion is the CCM secretary general, Abdulrahman Kinana.
In 2009, customs officers at the Vietnamese port of Haiphong found tusks weighing a massive 6.2 tonnes under bags of plastic waste on the freighter Sharaf.
The Sharaf Shipping Company, which owns the Sharaf, was registered in October 2003 in the name of Kinana and his wife.
Kinana insists he did not know about the hidden cargo.
This week he said that both Interpol and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species had cleared him of any wrongdoing and that he was a victim of a politically motivated smear campaign.
The Environmental Investigative Agency complained in a 2011 report that the Tanzanian authorities appear unwilling, or unable, to control the illegal trade because government officials are implicated.
AmaBhungane heard a similar tale from a ranger in Selous Game Reserve, who spoke anonymously. He said it would be very hard to eradicate "the business" because it involves senior officials in government, the police force and the wildlife department.
The ranger said that a large number of police officers are on the syndicates' payroll and that they receive about up to seven million Tanzanian shillings (Tsh) (about R4400) a month - at least three times their police salaries.
Corrupt police officers and rangers have also released poaching suspects arrested in the parks and tipped off "the network" about the government's or police's plans.
Last week, two Dar es Salaam police officers were arrested in the coastal town of Kisarawe with 70 tusks worth Tsh850-million - a haul equivalent to 35 poached animals.
The director of criminal investigation, Robert Manumba, confirmed that elephant poaching in Tanzania has worsened in recent years and that smugglers conceal illegal ivory under cement, sunflower seed, plastic, timber and maize.
According to Allan Kijazi, director of Tanzanian National Parks, his agency had recruited an additional 250 game rangers since December 2011 to combat poaching.
A spokesperson for Tanzania National Parks, Paschal Shelutete, said that a major difficulty is that rangers are more lightly armed than poachers, who use semiautomatic rifles, including AK-47s.
Further compounding the difficulties of enforcement is the fact that many of the poachers are freed after arrest.
The Chadema report complains that some magistrates give unconditional bail to suspects facing poaching charges.
The director of the wildlife section in the natural resources ministry, Alexander Songorwa, commented that toothless laws are another obstacle.
"Some laws do not allow rangers to use guns in the fight against the bandits," he said. A ranger caught poaching faced a paltry Tsh20 000 fine.
The alleged involvement of businesspeople has been highlighted by the case of Frank William, a hotelier and mining capitalist arrested in January and charged with intermediating between local poachers and the smuggling syndicates. He was released on bail.
Another businessperson who faces charges, Selemani Isanzu, is suspected of exporting 781 tusks through Malawi in May. He couldn't be reached for comment this week.
After the Vietnamese authorities impounded more than six tonnes of raw ivory in 2009, a range of Tanzanian suspects, including senior freight company executives, an official of the Tanzania Revenue Authority and four Dar es Salaam port employees, appeared in the Kisutu Magistrate's Court.
The charges were dropped last year, reportedly after Vietnam declined to pass on evidence, saying no treaty between the countries allowed for this.
The hope is that President Barack Obama's $10-million pledge, handed to Tanzania's natural resources ministry, will make some impact by providing training for enforcement officers and technical support.
The spokesperson for the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Dana Banks, said the aim was "to strengthen policies and legislative frameworks and enhance investigative and law enforcement functions".
* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.